Revealed: Jane Austen's country life

She is one of Britain's best-loved novelists, famed for her works of romantic fiction set among the English middle and upper classes. But while much is known about Jane Austen – that her father was a clergyman, and that she lived for some years in Bath and Southampton and took holidays in the West Country – little attention has been paid to the countryside in which she spent the greater part of her life. Now, in the first book of its kind, Jane Austen expert Deirdre Le Faye has uncovered the rural backdrop to Jane's life, letters and novels

English author Jane Austen circa 1790 – Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images

In Jane Austen's Country Life, Le Faye argues that Jane's first-hand knowledge of rural affairs underpins her writings, and gives the time frame against which she constructs her plots. 

Here, in an interview with History Extra, Le Faye shares her findings, and reveals how being a farmer's daughter influenced Jane's romantic novels which continue to captivate readers 200 years on.

Q: What is your new book about?

A: The book looks at a different aspect of Jane's life. Everyone knows she was a parson's daughter; everyone knows she had brothers in the navy and lived for a time in Bath; but no one has pointed out that for more than half of her life, Jane was living in rural Hampshire.

Born in December 1775, Jane spent 33 of her 41 years in the Hampshire countryside – first in the isolated hamlet of Steventon, and later the larger village of Chawton. Jane's father was the rector of Steventon, and in addition to his clerical duties was the hands-on farmer of some 200 acres in the parish, which he leased from his distant cousins in Kent. 

At Cheesedown Farm Mr Austen grew arable crops and kept pigs, while his large flock of sheep grazed on the hillsides around the village. We know from Jane's letters that there were not very many other gentry families in the immediate neighbourhood for the Austens to visit, and she often refers with interest and kindness to the villagers and farm labourers who were her father's parishioners.

Q: How did Jane's life in the countryside impact upon her writing?

A: As well as Cheesedown Farm, Jane's mother kept some dairy cows and assorted poultry in the small field next to Steventon rectory, for immediate use in the rectory kitchen. So Jane would have grown up with the sounds of mooing and cackling right underneath her window, and the bleating of sheep and the tinkling of their bells on the surrounding hills. 

The countryside was the backdrop to Jane's life, and formed the background to her novels. This has not really been picked up on before.

For example, in Sense and Sensibility the characters move from Sussex to Devon, and it's there that the action starts. Marianne is running down a hillside in the rain when she falls and sprains her ankle, and is helped by an unknown young man – Willoughby – who has to carry her home: it's the Devonshire countryside that brings them together.

And in Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy Bennet jokes about the noise of pigs getting into the garden. Perhaps the pigs at Cheesedown Farm had escaped in just such a noisy way, and gave Jane the memory which she wrote into her novel as an example of Lizzy's down-to-earth cheerfulness.

Mansfield Park [published in 1814] and Emma [published 1816] are very much about the countryside from the perspective of landowners – they were written when Jane was living in Chawton, where she was no longer the rector's young daughter but the landowner's sister. Her rich brother Edward Knight owned the Chawton estate with its old Elizabethan manor house just outside the village.

In these later years of her life she had stayed with Edward in his mansion at Godmersham in Kent, and had learnt first-hand how a large estate had to be managed.

In Persuasion, while Anne is staying with relations in Somerset, she walks sadly through the fields thinking she is in the autumn of life – 'past it' – when she sees a farmer who is already ploughing for spring sowing. It makes her realise that after the autumn there can still be another spring.

And in Sense and Sensibility, the mean-minded John Dashwood refuses to give any financial support to his stepmother and half-sisters, with the excuse that he has spent all his money upon enclosing the Norland estate – that is, laying out new fields and planting hedges around them. 

Finally, in Emma Mr Knightley is a most efficient farmer, knowing how to make the best use of his land and generously giving away some of his orchard's apples to poor old Mrs and Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax.

Q: What motivated you to write this book?

A: Friends were urging me to write another book about Jane Austen, so I thought it over and the idea came to me. I then went back and studied Jane's letters again closely, re-reading the research I carried out when I published a new edition of them, and I saw how hard life could be in the country, for gentry just as much as for labourers: the mud, the rain, the cold. 

Those circumstances affected Jane's heroines, too, because they would have been stuck at home in bad weather – as indeed are Fanny Price and Mary Crawford, when the autumn turns very wet. 

You have to look for the references to agriculture in Jane’s works – they are not prominent – but they are there. I had great fun in picking these references out and putting them in my book, and the more you think about them, the more you can enter into Jane’s mind and envisage for yourself the green countryside with its woods and fields, cottages and stately homes, sheep on the hillsides and pigs in the sties – or escaping into gardens! – all the scenes her heroines saw, and which you’ll be able to enjoy with them now you know what to look for.

Deirdre Le Faye's Jane Austen's Country Life, published by Frances Lincoln Publishers, is now on sale.

Le Faye is an expert on Jane Austen, and the author of several books about her, including Jane Austen: A Family Record (Cambridge University Press) and new editions of Jane Austen's letters for Oxford University Press.

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